We’ve Entered the Post-Progressive Era
What happened to the progressive movement? After defining American politics at the start of the Twentieth Century and then again under the reign of the New Dealers from the 1930s to the 60s, it fizzled out. Its accomplishments were many: a federal income tax, labor rights, conservation parks, central banking, voting rights, Social Security, monopoly busting, modern infrastructure, and Medicare/Medicaid, among several other things. It took the innovations of the new, scientific age and translated them into policy. It could boast presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. It won two world wars and successfully accomplished democratic nation-building in formerly autocratic empires (Germany and Japan), as well as in several of their now-independent domains.
These outcomes were not inevitable. Several modern nations fell to the way of fascist or communist dictatorships. Progressives therefore provided a democratic solution to the problems of the day that maintained the prosperity of markets while protecting the interests of workers and the poor. At the movement’s high points, it saw the Democratic and Republican Parties both competing for the mantle of progressivism, but ultimately the partisan realignments that were borne out of the Civil Rights Movement and end of the Cold War left progressives without a party. When the death knell sounded is debatable, but 1980 might the best estimate, as Reagan led a new GOP based on neoconservatism (hawkish foreign policy; minimalist, but theocratic domestic affairs). Historians have often referred to the period since as the Reagan Era, in recognition of the change in political tones that marked his election, for even Reagan himself had renounced his previous role as a New Deal Democrat. (For clarity, the Progressive Era often covers 1898 to 1920, and the New Deal Era typically spans 1932 to 1968.) Democrats, under the Clintons, adopted an identity of corporatist liberalism.
After we entered the Twenty-First Century, a third era of progressivism seemed like it was on the horizon. The Great Recession in 2008, caused in large part by historic income inequality (coupled with the controversial bank bailouts that came without convictions of the Wall St fraudsters) provoked populist outcry. On the right, we saw the Tea Party Movement, while on the left, we saw Occupy Wall St, and both criticized their parties’ establishments. Only the Tea Party committed itself to winning congressional seats (which it managed to do), but Occupy created momentum that culminated in the underdog candidacy of Bernie Sanders — who could fondly recall growing up under FDR — in 2016. Even though he narrowly lost, a movement had begun. Might we have another New Deal?
Furthermore, while the Roosevelts as presidents were members of the aristocracy that managed to overcome their class biases in service to the everyman, this current movement is better defined by embittered, distrusting members of the commons, who are more interested in retribution than in duty.
Certain similarities have emerged, for sure. There have been calls to regulate Wall St more carefully, to update the minimum wage, to tax the wealthy for redistribution, to make health care guaranteed as a right, and to tackle corruption by getting money out of politics. Yet, there have been things that are difficult to square up with progressive politics. Monopolistic and multinational corporations have found their best defenders on Tuesday from among their harshest critics on Monday. This new movement is so quick to find the next target of outrage that they often forget what problems they are trying to solve in the first place, effectively just as corporatist as the Clintons that they despise.
Moreover, why they liked Sanders frequently has had little to do with his actual positions. Rather, they project onto him as a symbol of a Marxist revival, similar to how the alt-right projects onto Trump as a symbol of neo-Nazism. Where the Senator from Vermont despises wealth as it is used to undermine democracy, several of his supporters despise wealth in and of itself. Furthermore, while the Roosevelts as presidents were members of the aristocracy that managed to overcome their class biases in service to the everyman, this current movement is better defined by embittered, distrusting members of the commons, who are more interested in retribution than in duty.
All of this having been said, in what era are we currently? Is this the third act to the Progressive and New Deal Eras of history? Is this, perhaps, something else entirely?
The Post-Progressive Era
I would say that the movement currently observed on the left, often associated with figures such as Sanders, is not a resurgence of progresssivism. While it has many similar features, the arrangement here is what matters. This movement is so interested in uprooting “the system” that it is even willing to uproot some of the hard-won victories of progressives in the past, which managed to become part of the system. This is something beyond what we have known in previous eras. It is, in a manner of speaking, post-progressivism.
A metaphor comes to mind, that I think may help to explain the concept. French history buffs may be aware that, after the Bastille prison and armory was stormed and demolished in 1789, some of its bricks were used to construct other things, to include the Pont de la Concorde, a bridge in Paris. While that bridge may share pieces of the Bastille, this does not make it the same as the Bastille itself. This would be true, even if every part had come from the Bastille. It would still be a bridge, not a prison or an armory. Maybe it is a post-prison or a post-armory, but that is the best one could say. For post-progressives, this is the best one could say about them too.
Progressives would look at the kind of influence that a large corporation, such as Google, has on society and may think it wise to impose checks on them. Sure enough, some companies, particularly in the tech sector, have enough pull around the world and access to resources that they essentially fill the role of the state in certain matters. Think of how many people rely on Facebook or YouTube for information and how much it is the companies that get to decide what information gets out, who is removed from the platform, and even whether or not someone is liberal or conservative.
It is not only information that is on the table. Funding sites such as Patreon and PayPal can essentially decide whether or not content creators can have an income or not. In the post-2008 economy, where careers are fewer and machines are taking up several jobs, the Internet is a last refuge for impoverished millennials as a revenue source. Sargon of Akkad might have uttered some distasteful words, but do we really want a narrow pool of unelected people on Patreon’s Trust and Safety Committee flexing that kind of power over political opinions on users? In this case, especially, it is clear that Patreon violated the terms of its own agreement with Sargon.
The same question could be asked in the case of James Damore, who was fired by Google for his infamous memo about population differences between men and women. He might have been more courteous about it (if we submit that he was not for the sake of argument), but Google also specifically asked for feedback about its hiring practices. Do we want an America where employers can entrap their workers like that? What happened to James Damore’s labor rights? Where are the “progressives” when big business flexes its muscles against individuals?
So what if Damore and Sargon are white men? All that means is that changing the rules in favor of corporatism is going impact minorities even harder. If we break the dam to drown just two men, we will flood the town for everyone else too.
I suspect post-progressives easily forget these things, as long as companies commemorate Pride Day or run an advertisement about toxic masculinity. To be fair, these are not small issues. There are still strides to be made in making society more equal for LGBT folk and women. Yet, look at how many shoes Nike sold when it backed Colin Kapaernick’s TakeAKnee message. Are they going to give people of color who work at their shops a raise with those profits? I doubt it, and while I would like to blame the company, at some point we have to blame the consumers too for enabling this. Companies behave this way because they expect to profit from it. They expect to profit by gaming the emotions and impatience of their customers, and when post-progressives fall in line and claim that Damore or Sargon can be an exception because they are white men, they are betraying their own principles.
The thing about moral principles is that one has to abide by them, even if our most hated individuals might benefit. We protect the most loathsome, so that no excuse can be made to harm the meek and vulnerable. So what if Damore and Sargon are white men? All that means is that changing the rules in favor of corporatism is going impact minorities even harder. If we break the dam to drown just two men, we will flood the town for everyone else too.
It is for these reasons that I do think we have entered a new era, but it is not marked by a return of progressivism. Rather, we are looking at a new animal in post-progressvism, a coalition of reactionary leftists who formed in response to reactionary rightists, who have fond memories of progressivism but lack an interest in restoring it. It is a group that will decry the protest voters who elected Trump as enablers of fascism but then will vote with their dollars in support of the very institutions that fascism is intended to serve.
Will this era be marked by accomplishments? The mostly likely answer is “no” because this movement did not form in a vacuum of income inequality like the previous progressive movements. Distinct from those two, it occurred in an era of intense polarization between the Democratic and Republican Parties. As I said of the previous progressive movements, they managed to draw liberals and conservatives toward common goals. Post-progressives, meanwhile, reject anything that has the appearance of being right-wing. This lack of a mutual balancing act and the potential for inter-partisan dialogue is key because it makes disruption the mechanism of the times, rather than new policy.
Disruption is not just observed in their counter-protests against crowds with MAGA hats. They cannibalize their own as well. Gender non-binary activists tear down bisexuals for implying there are two genders in their self-identity. Supporters of intervention for the Kurds get shot down by pro-Venezuelan non-interventionists. Critics of anti-vaxxers who also have concerns about epidemics from open borders have to deal with charges of white nationalism. Advocates of mental health awareness apparently should not like the film Joker. The problem is not so much disagreement but the polarization behind it, that disagreement is seen to come from a place of hatred and bigotry.
This is why the movement will make an impact but not in terms of policy, just in its ability to derail things. Coalitions win elections, and winners of elections write laws. So long as post-progressives are in a free-for-all to prove who is the least racist, least sexist, and otherwise least bigoted person, they will not win elections. The kind of organization necessary to achieve these things relies on trust, and this is a movement that is defined by a refusal to trust anyone, even itself.
We might not get Medicare-for-All. We might not get trustbusting. We might not stop climate change or get money out of politics. At least, however, there will be a beautiful moment in time where working-class individuals stopped other working-class individuals from getting ahead, where they weaponized the yoke of the same income inequality that they claimed to hate with outrage mobs and deplatforming. At least the 1% will get to run to the bank, and I suppose that is better than no happily ever after at all.